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Title Education for Life 
Author Jason Wood
Key Concepts Oppression, Informal Education, History of Youth Work, Values



"Education is the business of youth work. Enabling and supporting young people, at a critical moment in their lives, to learn and develop the capacities to reflect, reason and to act as social beings in a social world."

(Young, 1999:1)

Education is, undoubtedly, an essential component in the practice of youth work. It is firmly recognised by policy that youth work is an educational profession, and the 1990 statement of purpose confirms that youth work offers opportunities that are:

"Educative – enabling young people to gain the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to identify, advocate and pursue their rights and responsibilities as individuals and as members of groups and societies." (NYA 1998:3)

The United Kingdom Youth Work Alliance updated that statement in 1996, stating that youth work "offers a wide range of informal education activities in the community" in pursuit of providing opportunities for young people to enhance their personal and social development. (UK Youth Work Alliance 1996:3)

So who has informed our educational work? What are the differences that set youth work from, say, schooling?

I take this opportunity to look at the work of the late Paulo Friere, who was a Brazilian adult educator. Freire’s educational work was essentially focused on giving a sense of power to people who experienced poverty (Collins 1999). Through his engagement with the poor, he taught the importance of involvement in political processes through the use of the knowledge of literacy and reading. During the time that the Military overthrew the prevailing regime in Brazil, progressive movements were clamped down on and Friere was jailed and eventually exiled. In the late 1960s, his work in the USA brought him into contact with the racial unrest that riddled America. He discovered that the oppressed here were also excluded from political, social and economic opportunities. It is during this time that he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which he stated that "Education is to be the path to permanent liberation". He presented two stages of this – becoming aware (conscientized) of the oppression and through "praxis" taking action to change (Collins 1999). Friere placed a strong emphasis on the importance of dialogue in the learning process. He provided the idea of banking as a method of education. Put simply, this is where educators make deposits to the learner. He encouraged the dialogue to be a two-way process of learning (Smith, 1999).

If I relate Freire’s ideas to my own practice – I can begin to make some very clear connections. Through praxis, Freire had a desire to use dialogue as a means to foster informed action – with a goal of changing the world (Smith 1999). As a youth worker, this is an important theory when working with all young people, and especially those from oppressed groups. Through my own dialogue with young people, I seek to inform young people and enter a two way learning process. Part of my role as an educator is to present young people with information that supports their rights, redressing inequalities in relation to race, gender, sexuality or class. A specific example I will draw on took place at a rural youth centre where I worked. Workers and I felt that young people were making comments of a homophobic nature during a particularly busy night. The next session I attended, I had prepared a planned "tool" of conversation about sexuality. The young people who I had built a strong relationship with over the two years I had worked with them, began to approach me and ask about the issue, responding to a flip-chart I had put up. From this stemmed a series of debates and questions surrounding the issue of sexuality. Even if people still retained their standpoints, I believe that contribution was a valid one – as questions were raised and a process of learning took place. Through this method of education, I am defying the norm that sexuality and the politics of it are "better left without discussion" resulting in ignoring the social constructions of sexuality (Kent-Baguley 1990:99).

In our work as informal educators, and in pursuit of anti-oppressive practice, conversation is an important function. It is clear that we are out to provide learning opportunities, but it is also important that I note that we are there to learn also. In challenging people, we are looking for ill-informed assumptions and must stay open to legitimate points of view from people (Jeffs & Smith 1999). In my mind, this is about remembering that our values, personal beliefs and ideologies can show in our approaches with young people.

I would like to draw upon another educational philosophy that I believe has informed the importance of education and my own practice. Carl Rogers was concerned with the development of counselling and client-centred therapy in his work. Drawing from his work and an approach that he called non-directive therapy, he extended his views to education. He promoted the idea that he was a "facilitator to engagement" (Smith 1999). Informal Educators are able to relate to this theory as it steps away from the idea of formal teaching and more in line with the idea of creating learning opportunities. Indeed, Carl Rogers’ philosophy is summarised in this quotation:

"I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile and quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING...the insatiable curiosity that drives..."

(Rogers 1983 cited in Smith 1999)

Rogers has been criticised for this in some respects as in some ways it dismisses the importance of formal education, or teachers (Smith 1999). Whilst being critical of aspects in formal education, I remain convinced that each practice compliments each other.

Having looked at the philosophies that I believe underpin informal education, I would now like to explore the idea of informal education further by examining its process. Formal education is much concerned with set outcomes. In schools, a national curriculum is instigated by the government and implemented by teachers. Informal education is different in its delivery. Much of what we do as educators is locally determined or even based on an individual with conversation as a major factor of determining our "curriculum". Our roles differ, as do situations, throughout our practice, but the process can be illustrated in this way (Jeffs & Smith 1999:65 Fig 5.3):

1) We make an assessment of what may be going on and our role

2) We engage in conversation

3) This raises questions

4) We consider these in relation to what we discern makes for human flourishing

5) This enables us to develop a response...

This process of conversation shows a responsive style of education where our curriculum is determined by the direction that young people wish to take.

An element of informal education is that it happens in a variety of places and is essentially of a voluntary nature. With this in mind, the process described above is important to our planning. Using the above process, we are able to take the challenge of educating on a mountain top if needs be! Another positive aspect of this process is the pursuit of working with oppressed groups. I am able to determine, with young people, the nature of the educational activity through this model. A set curriculum within a formal educational setting may benefit a white, middle class male – but how does this type of teaching fare for a black young woman? A practical example I would like to draw on is the use of cultural awareness in debates. Often in my groupwork sessions with young people, I have tried to present different perspectives on the issue that we have come together to discuss. This could be interpreted as a way to avoid "devaluing" black people and challenging the stereotypes formed by white members that black people are inferior (Thompson 1999).

Having explored the philosophies and practice of informal education within youth work, I would like to discuss the historical context of education in the development of youth work.

According to history, youth work has always had an educational focus. Indeed, the first "work with young people" movement that I find documented is the establishment of Sunday Schools by Robert Raikes in the late eighteen century (Nightshift 1996).

The development of the youth work movement, and education as its component, has historically been subject to the "knee jerks" of society and policy makers’ perceptions of issues surrounding young people. In simple terms, this means that often the service, and youth work in general, has responded to the needs around it almost as a shock response! Robert Raikes set up the Sunday School in Gloucester after he witnessed young men (who had worked the other six days of the week) hanging around the streets and "getting into trouble". It was his belief that the inadequacies of the jail system could be challenged, by prevention (i.e. – working with the boys) than cure (Canton Baptist Temple 1999).

The voluntary nature of youth work has been consistent from history, preceding any statutory provision. Indeed, it was not until 1918 that Local Authorities were obliged to give any financial aid (Nightshift 1996).

The educational role in youth work first appeared to gain some importance in 1939, when the government issued a Board of Education Circular stating that youth services should have:

"An equal status with other educational services conducted by the local authority." (Nicholls 1997)

Further influence towards our current practice can be found in Circular 1516 by the Board of Education in 1940. This stated that the aim of the Local Education Authorities was concerned with the development of individuals so that they can take their place as "full members" of communities (Nicholls 1997). With subsequent youth work encompassing the community picture, we can see how this could relate to current practice.

In 1951, the educational role was questioned and the services were subjected to financial cuts, but at the same time the profession gained conditions of service for the first time. It was not until 1960 that new recommendations for provision were made in the historical findings of The Albemarle Report. The committee’s findings suggested more funding for the youth service, new buildings and training for youth workers. During the 1960s, the profession of youth work was given much attention as a result of the Albemarle Report. The JNC was formed to negotiate the salaries, conditions of service and qualifications with respect to youth workers but more significantly – the first National College for the Training of Youth Leaders was opened (see Nightshift 1996 and Nicholls 1997).

Throughout the development of youth work, history shows that there was an amazing lack of awareness towards the class divisions that existed in society from the 1960s onwards. This was due to a state dominant assumption that greater wealth and more equality of opportunity was resulting in a "classless" society (Davies 1999). In the 1980s, work with oppressed groups finally came to some fruition. This was, in part, due to the pressure of workers with a concern, but probably more so to another "knee jerk" set of events. By comparing a few historical notes, I can see some visible responses by the government to issues of race. Work with black young people began to take place during this decade. At this period of time, there was an uprising of black young people in parts of England as a result of racist police action. An account of a young black man working in Birmingham during the 1980s gives a disturbing picture of unemployment, racism in the justice system and discord among the black communities (Dennis 1988). One reflective opinion states that in London, police used their "position to practice their racial bias" (D’Aguiar 2000). The government responded to the "riots" by applying inner-city funding, and the youth service was challenged to work with black young people because of the "perceived threat of Black and Asian young men on the inner-city streets" (Davies 1999). A threat? Surely this is the most disturbing knee-jerk that we have seen to date.

The most recent knee-jerk was of the late 1990s. The government’s Social Exclusion Unit produced a report entitled Bridging the Gap providing details of young people who had been excluded from or were refusing school. It produced some alarming concerns about health, education and training/employment outcomes for young people who were aware from formal education (SEU 1999). The response by the government is to develop a brand new "Youth Support Service" that aims to increase participation in schooling. With the youth service being a open-door to all service, the target-market is now set to be narrowed to those "at risk" of disaffection which may result in a shift from an educational focus towards an advice one (Smith, 1999).


In this essay I have discussed the importance of education in the development of youth work.

I have discussed the educational philosophies of two people who I feel are personally relevant to my practice - Carl Rogers and Paulo Freire. With Freire’s work, I was able to make direct links to anti-oppressive practice, and youth work in general. I used sexuality as a practical example of how the characteristics of informal education can be applied, drawing on Jeffs and Smith’s work.

I then explored the historical development of youth work, looking at the important milestones for the youth service in terms of educational responsibility. I discussed the idea of knee-jerk events effecting the type of service, with particular reference to race.

In conclusion, it is clear that the youth service has a strong educational role. The importance of education is clear concentrating on young people’s development, both personally and socially.

My examination of the historical context has indeed reaffirmed the educational importance of my work. We can see from the 1980 "riots" that people who did not, consistently, have a chance to speak had to resort to aggression and violence to achieve speech. As an observation of my own practice, this is a lesson for the development of both understanding and informed action. Informal education, although at risk of being seconded to advice, needs to be consistent in youth work delivery, so that young people regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, religion and class are given opportunities to explore themselves, their communities and their rights.

How different do you think the 1980s would have been had there been an equal and fair opportunity to "speak out" for all?

© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001. Please always reference the author of this page.

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References & Recommended Reading


Young, K. (1999) The Art of Youth Work, Dorset, Russell House Publishing

National Youth Agency (1998) The NYA Guide To: What is the youth service?, Leicester, National Youth Agency

United Kingdom Youth Work Alliance (1996) Agenda for a Generation – Building Effective Youth Work, Scottish Community Education Council

Collins, D. (1999) Paulo Freire: His Life, Works and Thought at

Smith, M.K. (1999) Infed – The Informal Education Website, YMCA,

Kent-Baguley, P. (1990) Sexuality and Youth Work Practice in Jeffs and Smith (Eds) Young People, Inequality and Youth Work p99-119, Basingstoke, MacMillan

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M.K. (1999) Informal Education – Conversation, Democracy and Learning (2nd Ed) Ticknall, Education Now

Thompson, N. (1997) Anti-Discriminatory Practice (2nd Ed), Basingstoke, MacMillan

Nightshift Publications (1990) A Potted History of Youth Work, Albergavenny, Nightshift Publications

Canon Baptist Temple (1999) Robert Raikes 1736 – 1811 at

Nicholls, D. (1997) An Outline History of Youth Work, Community Work and the Union 1834-1997, Harborne, Pepar Publications

Davies, B. (1999) From Thatcherism to New Labour – A History of the Youth Service in England (Volume 2), Leicester, National Youth Agency

Dennis, F. (1988) Birmingham: Blades of Frustration in Owusu, K. (Ed) Black British Culture and Society p181-194, London, Routledge

D’Aguiar, F. (2000) Home is always elsewhere: individual and communal regenerative capacities of loss in Owusu, K. (Ed) Black British Culture and Society p195-206, London, Routledge

Social Exclusion Unit (1999) Truancy and Social Exclusion Report by The Social Exclusion Unit, London,

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